When Favorite Characters Die

After one of my friends finished reading The Black Alabaster Box, she e-mailed me.“I loved it. . . I must say that you are very brave, because I couldn’t kill off some of my favorite characters.”

It’s true. Some of my favorite characters experience the harsh reality of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Two die of small pox and four are murdered. (I won’t say which ones–you’ll have to read the book to find out!) I was terribly sorry to see them go. But I was determined to be true to a history in which few people traveled the trails without being witness to or experiencing its grim realities. And, while an author is in control of what happens, sometimes it feels as if the characters and context are calling the moves.

I don’t recommend the Trilogy to youngsters under about ten-years-old. It can be a great read-aloud for a nine-year-old, within the safety of family or schoolroom.

Disease was arguably the greatest killer on the trails, although many people were shot by accident. People drowned in dangerous river crossings as well. Traveling west was not a six week-long camping holiday.  And the greatest threat to wagon trains was not American Indians, though there were instances of violent clashes between wagon trains and native tribes.

Youngsters are exposed to an enormous amount of violence on their devices, in movies and on television. But it is one thing to see Batman and Robin going “Bif!” “Pow!” “Shezam!” as they kill off the bad guys and quite another to think about what you’d do if someone in your own family died.  

A good story can raise important and difficult issues in ways that can be discussed thoughtfully and with sensitivity at school or at home. It can become a cataylist for “What would you do if…?”

 A wise teacher will suggest that if her students have not talked through the “What would you do if?  question with their parents, they should do so. It is psychologically important for children and young people to know that should the worst happen, their parents or caretakers have made a plan for how to deal with it. Of course, disaster is not predictable. Plans can be disrupted. It isn’t possible to forsee the future. Hence, discussions are all the more important. Children should know “go-to” people they can rely on, how reach them, and if circumstances prevent them from reaching their “go-to” people, safe contacts.

It is hard for author and readers to accept death of favorite characters in a story. It is even harder to face the certainties of death in the midst of life. But we do it as part of living and learning how to go on.  A good story can help us along the way–especially if a caring adult is there to share the experience when favorite characters die.

Life on the Oregon Trail?

When I taught fourth grade in Portland Oregon–that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth–we had a unit on Westward Expansion. A lot of schools teach about pioneers settling the West in fourth, fifth or sixth grade. We used Mary Jane Carr’s Children of the Covered Wagon as a read-aloud. It was a good match for the unit. (If you haven’t read it, you can still find it in some libraries. I recently tracked down an old copy on line.)

Our understanding of the perspective of Native American People has changed since the book was written. But Carr is remarkably free of some of the errors to be found in social studies and history books of a few decades ago.

I thought it would be fun to form an imaginary wagon train going West. We could mark our progress on the Oregon Trail as we read the book. And we could tie our study in with English and language arts by keeping journals where we made up events that happened to us along the way. Everybody had to make up an identity and stick with it for the trip West.

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A Thousand Wagon Trains Head West

We had a whole wagon train full of single people. No way anybody was going to admit they’d want to be married, especially with somebody else in the class! Being married and having a family was too great a stretch of the imagination.

A lot of the girls were going West to be school teachers or doctors. Some were adventurers. Boys were going to be doctors, farmers, cowboys, or set up a business.

The journals were hardest. A typical journal entry was, “Not much happened today. Just more grass and hills to look at,” or heroic descriptions of battles with Native Tribes. We had to put a limit to attacks by Native People—especially since huge stretches passed through country that was not well populated.  Even then, we knew that attacks were few and far between. And we had to decide what rivers we were going to cross and when or how many times you could step on a rattlesnake and still live.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have some of the wonderful websites available today to help us understand life on the trail.

It was a lot of fun in spite of all our difficulties. We learned a lot about writing, imagination, plausibility and some of the grimmer realities of life on the trail. As hard as it was making up interesting things to happen along the way, I think we all agreed we got off easy. We didn’t have nearly as much to deal with as those who followed wagon trails to Oregon, Washington, and California!

All this is to say that I was really delighted when Jon Dunlap, fourth-fifth grade teacher at Rivendell School, Arlington, Virginia wanted to read The Alabaster Box to his class this spring. I’ll have more to say about that next post.